Artist reflections on Gestalt discussions

Explaining the concept of Gestalt or a composition to 6-10 year olds has challenged (and improved! 🙂 my ability to communicate it.

When I talk about Gestalt I mean ”visual composition” or where ”the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. Art theorist, author and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim is very articulate on the subject: he describes Gestalt Perception as a foundation of visual perception and draws on an 1890 essay by Christian von Ehrenfels to explain it with evidence from an example: “if each of 12 observers listened to 1 of 12 tones of a melody, the sum of their experiences would not correspond to what would be perceived if someone listened to the whole melody.” (“Gestaltqualitäten.” Vierteljahrsschrift fĂźr wissenschaftliche Philosophie, 1890, vol. 14, pp.249-292.) For Arnheim, “all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.” Furthermore, Gestalt psychology’s position ‘’that vision is creative and not just a ‘mechanical recording of sensory elements’” asserts that the experience of seeing is not just “an entirely subjective imposition of shape and meaning upon reality” but rather “the process of looking at the world [is] an interplay between properties supplied by the object and the nature of the observing subject.” (See Arnheim, R., Introduction, in Art and Visual Perception A Psychology of the Creative Eye. 1954, University of California Press: Berkeley. pp. i-ix.)

While Gestalt, composition, the role of interpretation and the subjectivity of seeing are difficult concepts to convey to people who are only just learning to think abstractly; I am finding that these children are getting there. Remarkably quickly, in fact. Even by the end of Thursday I  had seen an improvement in their comprehension of these ideas. (Their open-ness and flexibility in learning has impressed me, along with how good the teaching staff are with facilitating this development and student absorption and exploration of ideas).

In attempting to convey the concepts we have been talking about Recipes as opposed to a mish mash of ingredients; of the balance, perseverance and ‘heart’ or spiritual aspects involved in Andy Goldsworthy‘s landscape artworks as opposed to them being simply a pile of stones. We have also talked about the face composition that emerges from what otherwise could be simply a collection of food scraps or utensils in Jan Svankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” stop motion animation or Arcimboldo’s Summer oil on canvas.

So now when I point to a picture of a spoon in an artwork to ask ‘what is this?’ the answers I get include spoon but also ‘nose’; acknowledging the role of the composition and their understanding in what they see. Thus we also reinforce their understanding that perception is constructed, that interpretation plays a role in what we see, and that there are many different “ways of seeing“.

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Day 7: Gestalt for abstract thinking as evidenced in landscape art, animation and painting

This post aims to provide some theoretical background to the art and landscape activities undertaken during the residency – collaboration. Much of this material was presented on day 7 of the residency. As the project progresses its influence and implications for learning and art will become more explicit.

Becher & Becher

Typologies are a conceptual art technique pursued by contemporary photographers the Bechers. The Bechers are a husband-and-wife team of artists who have influenced an entire generation of German photographers. The reference material below includes illustrations from their Water towers series.

  

This exemplifies their ‘typological approach’ where a single archetypal subject (the water tower) is described through an accumulation of diverse examples. When objects of a single ‘type’ are seen ‘en masse’ a new understanding of those objects also becomes apparent; that is a ‘whole’ emerges that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is the definition of a ‘Gestalt’, a key conceptual strategy in the Forest Reflections project.

Stop-motion animation involves changing the subject matter (e.g. forest creature) slightly for every camera frame. Here it is done by the children with the artist’s guidance. Surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer will be discussed as he used stop-motion techniques with everyday objects. Some of his work can also be seen to relate to the ideas of Gestalt. This is sequences from the animation Dimensions of Dialogue where many parts (broccoli, carrot, etc) are combined to become a picture of a face (see reference material on the DVD for still images from this). These ‘Arcimboldo’-like heads gradually reduce each other to bland copies. Arcimboldo is also of interest and his painting ‘Summer’ is shown above. Švankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue won the “Golden Bear” Berlin 1983, prize for best animated film in Melbourne 1983, and in 1990 was awarded a prize for “the best film of all the years of the festival” at Annecy International Animation Festival. See a clip from this film online here.

The work of landscape installation artist Andy Goldsworthy will also be discussed as he often uses many similar elements to make up a whole composition; and the similarity between this technique and other Gestalt efforts; as well as his use of natural found objects and Assemblage make his work highly relevant to our project. The materials used in Andy Goldsworthy’s art often include brightly-coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns. For his ephemeral works, Goldsworthy often uses only his bare hands, teeth, and found tools to prepare and arrange the materials; however, for his permanent sculptures he has also employed machine tools. In the course of the project the children will be shown excerpts from “Rivers and Tides” a documentary of Goldsworthy’s work. Photographs of his work are shown above and a clip can be watched here.

Švankmajer and Goldsworthy also relate to our interest in Assemblage, an art process which consists of making a three-dimensional artistic composition from putting together found objects. 

Artists such as Arcimboldo, Svankmajer, Goldsworthy and the Bechers will be discussed throughout the project. Photography, Assemblage and stop-motion animation as well as other visual arts techniques and computer interaction will be explored. Typological approaches and Gestalt theory will combine to inform the creation of Perspective Maps as both an exercise in seeing and as a conceptual technique to facilitate (and teach) abstract thinking. Assemblage will also be explored as a conceptual mechanism. These efforts will parallel our ongoing poetic interpretation and reinterpretation of the landscape.

Jen Seevinck Lastly I am also showing examples of my own work and process as it brings together these concepts of Gestalt theory, abstraction from landscape using typological studies, extracting visual forms, reflecting using visual diaries and finally creating interactive artwork. This is especially the case with my art work +-now which uses sand as an interface and real-time computer generated imagery. It was installed at Beta_Space in the Sydney Powerhouse Museum in 2008 and developed from landscape studies made as early as 2003. The work is shown below. More information can be found on my website and publications (Jen Seevinck. “Tracing Moments.” Leonardo 43.3 (2010): 312-313. The MIT Press.)